How the “in at least 500 words or more” essay rule teaches bad habits
If you’re over the age of 8, you probably know what I’m talking about. That dreaded requirement we see on a homework assignment right before the weekend to write an essay about some bland topic in at least 500 words. Sometimes the teachers are lenient and allow it to be as close to 500 as possible, but not all of us are so lucky. My Sophomore year in high school I had to write a 500-word essay about the word “panacea”, and when I turned in a paper with around 480 words, I got a C for it… Honestly, I should be commended for writing 480 words about 1 word, I mean seriously…
I’ve always hated this rule and thought it was just plain stupid, but my adolescent mind couldn’t put together a reason for why I thought it was stupid until now. Now at 25 years old, I have had a good 2 years out of school to think seriously about why this requirement is stupid, and it took a manager telling me that my cover letter for my resume was bad for me to finally figure it out.
Unnecessary words. Often, when kids are told to write 500 words about something they don’t care about, they start adding unnecessary words to hit that mark. For example, I could write “My dog has long, black fur, which is hard to clean”, but if I was told I had to write a certain amount of words, naturally I’m only going to be thinking about the amount of words needed, not the amount of defining, powerful content. So instead of the simple sentence above, which gets the point across just fine, I might change it to something like “My silly dog has really long, jet black fur which is a real pain to clean thoroughly.” That sentence almost literally said the exact same thing as the first one, except I used “sentence enhancers”, which doesn’t translate to the real world very well unless you want to be a children’s story book writer.
Recently at an internship, my boss gave me a mock interview (we basically roleplayed that he was interviewing me for a fake job position) and he gave me a lot of helpful tips on what things I should and shouldn’t say when being interviewed. He also took a look at my cover letter and my resume, and one of the main things he criticized me on was my use of unnecessary words, such as “I have quite a diverse background” instead of simply “I have a diverse background”. He told me that, as a boss himself, he knows what it’s like to read through hundreds of job applications, and he runs into these “unnecessary words” very frequently, which just makes the process all the more tedious.
Once he told me this, I jokingly said “well it’s just that ‘in 500 words or more’ skill coming into play” which we both laughed at, but then I began to seriously think about that and realized how true that really is. That rule didn’t help us any as kids to learn how to write better, it only made our sentences unnecessarily longer.
Instead of putting a word count requirement on essays, why not put more emphasis on having a good argument. In my research on how to effectively write a good paper, I found a simple but effective quote in an article related to writing essays on the International Students website, which reads the following:
“Though more advanced academic papers are a category all their own, the basic high school or college essay has the following standardized, five paragraph structure:
Paragraph 1: Introduction
Paragraph 2: Body 1
Paragraph 3: Body 2
Paragraph 4: Body 3
Paragraph 5: Conclusion
Though it may seem formulaic – and, well, it is – the idea behind this structure is to make it easier for the reader to navigate the ideas put forth in an essay. You see, if your essay has the same structure as every other one, any reader should be able to quickly and easily find the information most relevant to them.”
You notice how they don’t say “make sure it has 500 words”.
Having redundancies and unnecessary words in your cover letter could be the difference between being hired and not being hired. It’s quite serious, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you want this to change, show this article to your teachers and maybe one day the education board will figure out something better than forcing a word requirement on kids.
It’s funny how many lessons we learned in school that don’t translate to the real world very well, isn’t it?